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OnePlus 9 review: Camera upgrades make this a must-have phone

The OnePlus 9’s camera is better than ever — it can hold its own against any Android device

OnePlus 9 review
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Tom's Guide)

Our Verdict

The OnePlus 9 doesn’t have all the features of the OnePlus 9 Pro, but it’s a great phone with a lower price that matches up well against other Android flagships.

For

  • Ridiculously fast charging
  • Top-performing Android phone
  • Better cameras than previous OnePlus models
  • Solid battery life
  • 120Hz screen-refresh rate

Against

  • Some color inconsistencies remain with cameras
  • No IP water resistance rating on unlocked phone
  • Only the 9 Pro offers a dynamically adjusting display
OnePlus 9: Specs

Starting price: $729
Screen size: 6.55-inch AMOLED (2400 x 1080; 120Hz)
CPU: Snapdragon 888
RAM: 8GB, 12GB
Storage: 128GB, 256GB
Rear cameras: 48MP main (f/1.8); 50MP ultrawide (f/2.2); 2MP monochrome
Front cameras: 16MP (f/2.4)
Battery size: 4,500 mAh
Battery life (Hrs: Mins): 10:51 (120Hz); 10:53 (60Hz)
Charging speed: 65W, wired; 15W, wireless
Size: 6.3 x 2.9 x 0.32 inches
Weight: 6.77 ounces

The OnePlus 9 Pro may be the premium choice for Android lovers, but don't overlook the OnePlus 9. The less expensive version of the new OnePlus flagship may lack some of the higher-end features of its sibling, such as a dynamically adjusting display, a telephoto lens and fast wireless charging, but the OnePlus 9 offers enough at a lower price to compete against some of the best Android phones out there.

The OnePlus 9 offers the features you've come to expect from OnePlus: solid battery life, fast charging and outstanding performance. But this latest phone goes a long way toward addressing a longtime Achilles' heel for OnePlus, because it improves  the quality of photos produced by the rear cameras.

In our OnePlus 9 review, we'll look at what's improved in this latest phone from OnePlus and whether it's enough to make this handset the next Android device you buy.

OnePlus 9 review: Price and availability

The OnePlus 9 starts at $729 for a 128GB model. That's $240 less than the OnePlus 9 Pro launching at the same time. More importantly, it's $70 cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy S21, which also features 128GB of storage, and the iPhone 12, which offers a meager 64GB. OnePlus' reputation as the phone maker that can beat the high price of flagship devices is secure, at least with this phone. 

OnePlus told there would be a 256GB version of the OnePlus 9 will cost $100 more, but so far, only the 128GB model appears on OnePlus' site, where you can buy the phone unlocked. (And why not? The OnePlus 9 is the best unlocked Android phone by our calculations.) The phone costs €699 and €799 in Europe for the 128GB and 256GB versions, respectively.

The OnePlus 9 shipped in April, you can buy it at Amazon, Best Buy and B&H Photo, as well as from OnePlus. If you prefer to buy your phones directly from wireless providers, T-Mobile also offers the OnePlus 9.

OnePlus 9 review: Design

There's a noticeable design difference between the regular OnePlus 9 and the Pro model. While the latter phone has a curved display — though not as curved as last year's OnePlus 8 Pro — the OnePlus 9 sticks with a flat-edge panel. Frankly, I prefer the 9's approach, as it makes the 6.3 x 2.9 x 0.32-inch phone easier to hold and there's little chance of accidental screen touches.

OnePlus 9 review

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Unlike the OnePlus 8, which placed its rear cameras in a descending line down the middle of the phone, the OnePlus 9 follows the lead of the OnePlus 8T with a rectangular camera array in the upper left corner of the phone. The camera bump feels pretty pronounced — so much so that when you lay the OnePlus 9 on its back, you'll get a little wobble if you press down on the phone.

OnePlus 9 review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

As with many of its other flagships, you won't get an IP rating for dust and water resistance with the OnePlus 9. That's reserved for the OnePlus 9 Pro version sold through T-Mobile. You also won't find a microSD slot on the OnePlus 9 for expanding the phone's storage.

OnePlus 9 review

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My OnePlus 9 review unit came in Astral Black, which places a layer of matte-black film beneath glossy glass. OnePlus says the effect reduces fingerprints, and while I did notice a smudge or two on my phone, the OnePlus 9 is certainly nowhere near as much of a fingerprint magnet as other phones I've tested recently.

OnePlus 9 review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

That said, I would have preferred to see the OnePlus 9 in Winter Mist, the other color option available in North America. That purple-ish phone features a refraction effect that I imagine is more eye-catching than a black matte phone, particularly in sunlight.

As with last year's OnePlus models, the OnePlus 9 features an in-display fingerprint sensor for unlocking the phone, with a handy fingerprint outline showing you where to press. It sometimes takes a couple of touches for the OnePlus 9 to recognize my fingerprint, though perhaps that will improve as I spend more time with the phone. 

Better to take advantage of the OnePlus 9's ability to detect your face and unlock your phone, though this facial recognition feature isn't secure enough to confirm mobile payments.

OnePlus 9 review: Display

It's not the marvel that the OnePlus 9 Pro display is, but the OnePlus 9's 6.55-inch screen still impresses with its bright AMOLED panel. You'll enjoy a 120Hz refresh rate, a step up from the 90Hz refresh rate of the OnePlus 8, though not the dynamically adjusting display that the OnePlus 9 Pro features. 

OnePlus 9 review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Still, that 120Hz display is great when you're scrolling through web pages, and as we'll see when we discuss the OnePlus 9's battery life, leaving the fast refresh rate turned on doesn't drain the battery.

I found the OnePlus 9 screen to be plenty bright, with a light meter reading of 696 nits with adaptive brightness turned on. That's a touch dimmer than the Galaxy S21 (711 nits), though it beats the iPhone 12's 569-nit reading. I had no problem seeing the OnePlus 9 screen outdoors in bright sunshine, though it's easier to navigate with the brightness cranked up all the way.

Colors look accurate on the OnePlus 9 screen, whether it's the grim, dreary world of Scranton paper pushers in The Office streaming on Peacock or the more vibrant scenery in the fictional country of Zamunda in a Coming 2 America trailer on YouTube. 

OnePlus 9 review

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When I was streaming on Peacock, I noticed that the picture didn't stretch to fill the entire OnePlus 9 screen, but that wasn't a problem with YouTube, where the familiar faces of Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall filled up a frame that went right to the OnePlus 9's minimal top bezel.

In its Vivid setting, the OnePlus 9 screen recreates 199.4% of the sRGB color spectrum, a number that drops to 104.1% when you adjust the display to Natural. That's in line with the 109.2% that the Galaxy S21 shows off. 

Whether you opt for Vivid or Natural, the OnePlus 9 screen renders colors fairly accurately with Delta-E scores of 0.28 and 0.27, respectively. Both scores are slightly better than the 0.29 Delta-E ratings for the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21. (The closer the rating is to zero, the more accurate the colors.)

OnePlus 9 review: Cameras

If there's been one common weakness among OnePlus' recent flagships, it's the camera performance. It's not that OnePlus doesn't make perfectly fine cameras, but when stacked up against the best camera phones, OnePlus' pictures don't look as sharp or as colorful.

OnePlus 9 review

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Enter famed camera maker Hasselblad to change all that. OnePlus has inked a deal with the Swedish firm aimed at improving the cameras on its phones, and the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro are the first models to benefit. 

The initial effort focuses on natural color calibration, with OnePlus promising natural, rich colors in photos shot by its 9-series phones. There are other tweaks as well, including a distinctive shutter sound and orange shutter button familiar to anyone who's used a Hasselblad camera.

The focus may be on software, but OnePlus isn't ignoring the hardware side of things. The OnePlus 9 comes with a 48MP main camera and a 50MP ultrawide angle lens, the latter of which features a freeform lens aimed at reducing the distortion you can find at the edge of wide-angle shots. 

There's also a dedicated monochrome camera, which, frankly, I wish OnePlus would have left on the drawing board. You won't get a telephoto lens with the OnePlus 9 — that requires an upgrade to the OnePlus 9 Pro.

The very first shot I took with the OnePlus 9 left me wondering whether the promised color calibration was all that it's cracked up to be. This plate of scrambled eggs looks ghostly pale in the OnePlus 9 shot — even the chipotle salsa on top of the eggs seems muted. 

The iPhone 12's photo doesn't have that problem, and you can see the yellow of the eggs alongside the other multitude of colors from the vegetables. Even the gray mushrooms have some pop in the iPhone pic.

We see a similar issue in this photo of a marquee outside a restaurant, taken with both the OnePlus 9 and the Pixel 4a 5G. (Yes, the Pixel 4a 5G is a midrange phone, but it's got the same cameras as the higher-end Pixel 5, so the comparison is apt.) 

The OnePlus 9 shot looks all right until you compare it to the Pixel's. Google's phone successfully distinguishes the blue and green neon surrounding the marquee, and you can see a patch of blue sky in the upper left corner. OnePlus' cameras washed out the sky.

Fortunately, the OnePlus 9's struggles with color were only sporadic. There's nothing wrong with this shot of a bowl of fruit. Yes, the iPhone 12 offers more vibrant colors and the red apple in the foreground comes into sharper focus. But the colors in the OnePlus 9 shot are very natural, and I'd be pleased to share this photo.

Moving outside to a Sonoma County pond, we see that the OnePlus 9 once again tackles color with skill, balancing the greens, blues and yellows in this shot. My daughter — the subject of the photo — prefers the OnePlus 9 photo because it has a dreamier cast to it, while I like the detail that the iPhone 12 captures in the ripples on the pond. You can't go wrong with either photo, though.

Testing out the ultrawide angle lens, there's a very slight bend to the trees on the right side of the iPhone picture, but you really have to look to notice it. 

More obvious is the difference in color — the iPhone 12 really offers a deep blue for the sky, and the vegetation growing pondside has a vibrancy lacking from the OnePlus 9. That said, I think the OnePlus 9 picture is perfectly acceptable, and it captures slightly more area than the iPhone's ultrawide angle lens does. That's handy for sweeping vistas.

As noted, there's no telephoto lens on the OnePlus 9, so you're relying on a digital zoom when you want to get closer to a shot. Fortunately, the software on the OnePlus 9 is up to the task for this photo of a drinking fountain erected by the Women's Temperance Union. (No, really.) 

You can clearly make out the text of the rather extremist messaging — I came here to get a drink of water, not a lecture, folks — and the OnePlus 9 actually does a better job of balancing sunlight and shadow than the iPhone 12 did on its zoom.

For low-light photography, I put the OnePlus 9 up against the Pixel 4a 5G, since Google's phones are a leader in this area, and I think the new OnePlus phone held its own. OnePlus clearly puts the focus on getting the colors right in this shot that's lit only by overhead LEDs and a solar lamp in the background. The stuffed animal is really as pink as it appears in the OnePlus photo, while the Pixel mutes that particular color a bit. 

The Pixel does a better job capturing more detail like the texture of the brick wall in the background, and it keeps the animals in sharper focus. But this is about as close to a push as you can get, which is good news, given OnePlus' track record in this area.

Which portrait shot you prefer depends on whether you prefer up-close-and-personal photos like the one the OnePlus 9 produces or images with more background, as seen in the iPhone 12 shot. 

I think the iPhone 12 is better at separating my daughter from the tree behind her, while the OnePlus photo gives you a better view of her face. Again, this is an instance where OnePlus holds its own against a well-regarded camera phone.

The OnePlus 9 has some specific camera features worth calling out, starting with its 2MP monochrome camera. By opting for the mono filter, you can get a true black-and-white shot, like this photo where I've drained all the color out of a field of periwinkle flowers. 

At least the monochrome lens doesn't wash out the shadows, and the finished product delivers the black-and-white image promised. I'm just at a loss as to whether I'd use this feature enough to merit a dedicated lens. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

I was far more impressed by the tilt-shift mode OnePlus includes in its camera app. Enable Tilt Shift and you can use selective focus to draw attention to a particular part of the image. This brick wall that I photographed wouldn't look very interesting as a regular photo, but the intentional blurs in the tilt-shifted shot produce a rather artistic view.

I'm not enamored with the 16MP front camera on the OnePlus 9. In this portrait shot, the OnePlus 9 lightened my face a little too much, whereas the Pixel 4a 5G didn't have as much trouble with the sunlight being cast on me. The A's logo in the Pixel photo is also sharper, and there's less over-exposure around my cap. 

OnePlus 9 review: Performance

Like the OnePlus 9 Pro, the OnePlus 9 is powered by the Snapdragon 888, the latest and greatest system-on-a-chip from Qualcomm. While it figures to find its way into most of the top Android phones later this year, the Snapdragon 888 is only in a handful of phones right now, such as Samsung's Galaxy S21 lineup and the new ROG Phone 5 gaming handset from Asus. As a result, the OnePlus 9's performance can match — and even beat — the top Android phones.

Running the Geekbench 5 test for general performance, the OnePlus 9 turned in a multicore result of 3,618. That's in the same ballpark as the OnePlus 9 Pro's 3,685 result — no surprise since the phones are running on the same chipset. 

The OnePlus 9 also kept pace with the ROG Phone 5 (3,672) while handily outperforming the Galaxy S21 (3,302). You can expect top performance from the OnePlus 9, thanks to not only the phone's Snapdragon 888 silicon, but also the 8GB or 12GB of RAM OnePlus includes in the different configurations of the devices.

In 3DMark's Wild Life Unlimited test, the OnePlus 9 turned in a result of 5,726, or 34.4 frames per second. That essentially matches the graphics performance of the ROG Phone 5, which hit 34.8 FPS on that same test. 

Considering that the ROG Phone 5 is specifically marketed as a gaming device, you can enjoy a similar experience with demanding games on the OnePlus 9, as I discovered when playing PUBG Mobile on the OnePlus handset. The game never stuttered, even during some pretty intense fire-fights, and graphics looked sharp, save for a few trees that looked a little janky when I sped by in a jeep.

Another aspect of the OnePlus 9 that's sure to appeal to gamers is the phone's stereo speakers. Because the speakers are front-firing, you don't cover them up with your hands when holding the OnePlus 9 in landscape orientation, so you can hear every last sound from your game. And these speakers are loud — so much so that when I was playing a game, my wife shut the door on me so that she wouldn't have to listen to the carnage from the other room.

As good as the OnePlus 9 and its Snapdragon 888 chipset is, it's still no match for the iPhone 12 and its A14 Bionic processor, which turned in better Geekbench (3,859) and Wild Life (39 FPS) scores. 

In our real-world test in which we have phones transcode a 4K video using Adobe Premiere Rush, the OnePlus 9 completed the task in 1 minute and 2 seconds. That's good for an Android phone — the Galaxy S21 took a second longer — but it's nowhere near the 26 seconds it takes the iPhone to transcode that same video.

OnePlus 9 review: 5G

The Snapdragon 888 silicon includes Qualcomm's integrated X60 5G modem. You'll have no problem connecting with T-Mobile's 5G network, whether you buy your phone directly from the carrier or pick up an unlocked version. An unlocked OnePlus 9 will only work with the LTE networks of AT&T, though.

As for Verizon, it's a little bit complicated. After we initially published our OnePlus 9 review, Verizon and OnePlus announced that the phone was certified to work on Verizon's 5G network. (We figured it would — the OnePlus 9 lists the necessary bands for compatibility with Verizon 5G.) However, that apparently ensures compatibility with just Verizon's slower, nationwide 5G; access to the faster Ultra Wideband network is reserved for the OnePlus 9 Pro.

Don't expect life-changing speeds from 5G at this point, though that's more a reflection of the state of 5G networks than any issue with the OnePlus 9. On T-Mobile's 5G network not far from my Bay Area house, the OnePlus 9 hit a download speed of 34.4 Mbps. My iPhone 11 Pro Max, connecting to Verizon LTE, reached 86 Mbps in that same spot. Adjust your 5G expectations accordingly.

OnePlus 9 review: Battery life and charging

One area in which OnePlus can indisputably teach other phone makers a thing or two concerns the phone's battery. OnePlus not only builds devices that typically last a long time, it also boasts the fastest charging speeds of any phone maker.

In terms of battery life, the OnePlus 8T was a bit of an outlier for OnePlus. It turned in only an average time for smartphones on our battery test, which involves setting a device to continuously surf the web over a cellular connection until it runs out of power. 

The OnePlus 9 rebounds quite nicely on our test, lasting for 10 hours and 51 minutes. That's not quite long enough to land on our best phone battery life list, where you have to hold out for 11 hours or more, but it's still an excellent time.

Even better, the OnePlus lasted just shy of 11 hours with its screen set at a 120Hz refresh rate. When we've tested other phones that offer fast-refreshing displays, we've noticed that the feature puts a serious hit on battery life. 

The Galaxy S21 lasts 6.5 hours when its adaptive display is enabled, for example — more than three hours shorter than when we set Samsung phone's screen to refresh at 60Hz. OnePlus should be congratulated for delivering a fast-refreshing screen without compromising on battery life.

We also tested the OnePlus 9 with its screen refresh rate set to 60Hz. That improved battery life by... 2 minutes, with the phone holding out for 9 hours, 53 minutes in our test. Essentially, you can keep the OnePlus 9's screen set at 120Hz without having to worry about any meaningful impact on battery life.

OnePlus 9 review

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It's in charging up the OnePlus 9's dual-cell 4,500 mAh battery where OnePlus really sets the standard. The phone supports OnePlus WarpCharge 65T technology, which allows the device to charge at a higher wattage for a longer period. 

The result? OnePlus says phones that support WarpCharge 65T can go from 0 to fully charged in 29 minutes. That's 9 minutes faster than the OnePlus 8T.

OnePlus 9 review

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Our testing didn't quite hit that speed, though it came awfully close. After 30 minutes of charging, our OnePlus 9's battery was at 98%. The Galaxy S21 only got up to 55% after half-an-hour, and Samsung's phone doesn't come with a charger like the OnePlus 9 does.

You can also wirelessly charge the OnePlus 9, with the phone supporting 15W charging with Qi-compatible charging pads.

OnePlus 9 review: Software

The Oxygen OS that OnePlus uses on its phones isn't the purest form of Android, but it's a reasonable take on the operating system that offers valuable add-ons without much in the way of bloat. 

OnePlus does include a folder of its own apps with the OnePlus 9, but these are generally useful tools for migrating data from another phone or connecting to the OnePlus community. There's no duplicate features here like there are on other Android phones.

OnePlus 9 review

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The biggest addition with Oxygen OS 11, which is built on Android 11, involves the latest version of the Turbo Boost memory-optimization feature. OnePlus says Turbo Boost 3.0 uses RAM compression and virtual RAM to let you keep 25% more apps open in the background than before. I can't quantify that exact figure, though switching between apps on the OnePlus 9 feels snappy.

You can expect two major Android updates plus three years of security patches from OnePlus. That's a level of support befitting a flagship phone, even if Samsung outdoes OnePlus by offering an additional Android update and an extra year of security patches.

OnePlus 9 review: Verdict

Until now, the biggest argument against OnePlus' phones has been the camera performance. While some inconsistencies remain, our OnePlus 9 review found that the new phone performs much better in that department when compared to the leading flagships. You'd still favor photos from the likes of the iPhone or the Google Pixel, but OnePlus is at least now in the conversation.

Those improved cameras means that the OnePlus 9 should also be in the conversation if you're wondering which phone to get. Not only is the OnePlus 9 cheaper than the Galaxy S21, it also outperforms that phone. 

In fact, you can even expect performance on par with the ROG Phone 5, making this an affordable option for gamers. And the fast-charging, long-lasting battery on the OnePlus phones continues to impress.

If you've been unsure about whether OnePlus is worth a gamble over devices from more established phone makers, let the OnePlus 9 be your assurance that this phone can hold its own against any Android device.

Philip Michaels
Philip Michaels is a senior editor at Tom's Guide. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics and old movies. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.
  • S.M.M
    The camera is very subpar. I typically trust Tomsguide reviews. In hindsight this review now reads more like a paid endorsement.

    If OnePlus Support ever responds my OnePlus 9 will be on its way back. After five hours if use I wanted no more, and it made returning to my old Pixel 3XL feel like it was the new phone. Pasting my response to OnePlus below.

    1) it's the worst dust magnet I've ever used. In the short time I had it today it had already started to collect dust in spots that would be next to impossible to remove. Like in the speaker and along the edges of the screen.

    2) it runs very hot. I'm not a gamer, that was just with normal use.

    3) the battery drains faster than my Pixel 3XL, which this was suppose to replace.

    4) the OnePlus 9 on Verizon's 5G LTE+ bandwidth tested no faster than the Pixel 3XL on Verizon's regular 4G LTE.

    5) the camera is horrible. Every picture was either washed out or pixilated.

    6) the adaptive screen brightness works to dim the screen. But nothing brings it back without opening the settings and doing it manually.

    7) not being able to shut off the crap in OnePlus's Android overlay is unacceptable. Which raises way to many user privacy concerns.

    8) not being able to remove some of the bloat-ware, like Netflix.

    9) nothing I tried ever got WeChat to work. Which became the final straw to break the camel's back. I have a family member in mainland China. Our only means to effectively talk is through WeChat. And yes I used OnePlus Switch to transfer everything.
    Reply